Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

22 APRIL, 2013

Nabokov and Homeland Security: How Russia’s Most Revered Literary Émigré Became an American


How a broken lock, a suitcase of dead butterflies, and a pair of boxing gloves became the backdrop of the making of a legend.

Born on April 22, 1899, Vladimir Nabokov — beloved author, butterfly-lover, no-bullshit lecturer, hater of clichés, man of strong opinions — endures as Russia’s most revered literary émigré export. While his journey to cultural acclaim in America was in many ways a story of hope, it was also one underpinned by profound sadness and loss that would come to permeate his work. After the Bolshevik Revolution, when Nabokov was only eighteen, his family was forced to flee their hometown of St. Petersburg. As refugees in nomadic exile, they finally settled in Berlin in 1920. Two years later, Nabokov’s father, who had become secretary of Russian Provisional Government, was killed by accident while trying to shield the real target of a political assassination. Shortly thereafter, Nabokov’s mother and sister moved to Prague, but he remained in Berlin and garnered considerable recognition as a poet. In 1923, he met Véra Evseyevna Slonim, the Jewish-Russian love of his life, with whom he’d remain for the rest of his days.

But Nabokov wasn’t destined for stable refuge. In 1940, when their only son Dmitri was just six years old, the Nazi occupation swept Europe as World War II reared its ominous head. In May of 1940, the Nabokovs, who had settled in France, fled from the menacing advance of the German troops and boarded the SS Champlain for America.

In The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov (public library), Andrea Pitzer, founder of Harvard’s narrative nonfiction site Nieman Storyboard, shines an unprecedented, kaleidoscopic spotlight on the author’s largely enigmatic life and its complex political context, including his emigration to America:

Just before departure, Dmitri came down with a blistering fever. It was not clear whether or not he could travel, or would be permitted to. After a visit with their doctor, the Nabokovs got sulfa tablets to treat Dmitri’s symptoms and boarded their train. By the time they finished the six-hour ride to the harbor in a sleeping car, he had recovered.

The Champlain pulled away from the dock on May 19, 1940, leaving a continent behind. Two weeks later, bombs would fall on Paris. The following month, France would surrender and Luftwaffe planes flying over St. Nazaire would kill more than four thousand British soldiers in the midst of evacuating.

But the Nabokovs managed to outrun the havoc of war. On the ship’s roster, Nabokov was listed as Russian, Véra as Hebrew, and Dmitri as Russian, distinctions that would have become relevant if they had missed their ship. But they did not miss their ship, and could revel for a moment in the possibilities of what the New World might bring. None of them had seen it before, though surely it would have more to offer than the mossy corner of his mother’s property in Russia that her family had once nicknamed America. … Shipboard, he carried the story of a Central European refugee with a passion for young girls and a tale of a Russian émigré crushed by tragedy, along with a novel of two brothers and the distance between them that is fixed by death.

By the time the passengers on the Champlain lost sight of Europe, the first building of the Auschwitz concentration-camp complex had opened a thousand miles away in Poland.


Aboard the Champlain, the crew fired its guns at a whale, mistaking it for an enemy submarine, while Nabokov sailed more than three thousand miles across the Atlantic in a first-class cabin. The elegance of the trip contrasted sharply with the passengers’ desperation. Germany and Russia marched deeper into chaos; Paris wobbled at their departure. Arriving on May 26, the ship anchored off Quarantine for a day before sailing into New York Harbor.

Vladimir Nabokov's United States Immigration Identification Card

(Image courtesy Andrea Pitzer)

Though the circumstances of the Nabokovs’ escape were as devastating as history could afford, the logistics of their arrival in America seemed just as mundanely yet exasperatingly bureaucratic as what those of us who go through the process today face:

On the forms, Nabokov listed himself as an author and Véra as a housewife. Immigrants also had to answer a standard battery of questions about polygamous tendencies, physical defects, and mental health problems, and were required to assert repeatedly that they were not anarchists and had no intent to overthrow the government. The United States was not at war, but was very much worried about Communists and revolutionaries entering the country.

After they finished with immigration, the Nabokovs’ luggage still had to clear customs, but Véra could not find the key to their trunk. Waiting for a locksmith, Nabokov asked where to find a newspaper, and was given The New York Times by a porter. With the persuasion of an iron bar, the lock yielded to the locksmith, who promptly relocked it by mistake. When the trunk had finally been opened for good, customs officials remarked on the dead butterflies Nabokov had packed, and began to spar with the boxing gloves they found inside. Vladimir Nabokov was on his way to becoming an American.

Vladimir Nabokov's United States Certificate of Naturalization

(Image courtesy Andrea Pitzer)

Despite derailed plans by their greeting party, the ex-wife of Nabokov’s cousin, the family took a cab to her apartment and so began their new life in the city that, as E. B. White famously termed it, “blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.” Pitzer writes:

Gifted with unfettered liberty (so long, apparently, as they did not promote anarchy), Vladimir and Véra made their way into Manhattan with a $100 bill and hope for better prospects.

For all the thrill of arrival on a new continent, Nabokov’s routine in the first few weeks must have seemed dispiritingly familiar. Living in a succession of temporary quarters, he once again tried to sell himself and his literary talents — the thing in which he had the most confidence in the world — to a public ignorant of their value.

And yet that very public would come to elevate Nabokov to the status of literary über-celebrity. What few realize, however — and what Pitzer reveals through newly-declassified intelligence files and rigorously researched military records — is that Nabokov wove serious and unsettling political history into the fabric of his fiction, which had gone undetected for decades: until now. Absorbing and illuminating, The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov paints an unparalleled portrait of the author’s dimensional life and legacy, remarkably, without stripping his work of any of its magic.

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11 APRIL, 2013

How Elvis Presley Ushered in the Era of Teen Consumer Culture


All shook up over portable radio and credit buying.

The 1950s were a time of monumental transition — color replaced black-and-white, the century of the self was coming into full bloom, and the American Dream was taking its first bold steps into new economic freedom after the sequential devastation of the Great Depression and World War II. But one particular change that took place in that seminal decade grew to be a central driving force of contemporary culture.

In The Fifties (public library), Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist David Halberstram considers how Elvis Presley’s music, at the perfect confluence of the golden age of portable radio, the rise of credit buying, and the rock-and-roll cross-over spearheaded by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, ushered in a new era of the teenager as a flag-bearer of consumer culture:

Presley’s timing was nearly perfect. … Parents might disapprove of the beat and of their children listening to what they knew was black music. But their disapproval only added to Presley’s popularity and made him more of a hero among the young. Local ministers might get up in their churches (almost always well covered by local newspapers) and attack demon rock as jungle music and threaten to lead a crusade to have this Presley boy arrested if he dared set foot in their community (generally, there was no problem, their towns were too small for him to play). It did not matter: Elvis Presley and rock music were happening.

A new young generation of Americans was breaking away from the habits of its parents and defining itself by its music. There was nothing the parents could do: This new generation was armed with both money and the new inexpensive appliances with which to listen to it. This was the new, wealthier America. Elvis Presley began to make it in 1955, after ten years of rare broad-based middle-class prosperity. Among the principal beneficiaries of that prosperity were the teenagers. They had almost no memory of a Depression and the great war that followed it. There was no instinct on their part to save money. In the past when American teenagers had made money, their earnings, more often than not, had gone to help support their parents or had been saved for one treasured and long-desired purchase, like a baseball glove or a bike, or it had been set aside for college.

An essential byproduct of this, just as the new middle class had begun to take over the country, was the rise of a new consumer class: youth. By 1956, the 13 million teenagers in America had a cumulative income of $7 billion a year, a staggering 26% increase over the figures from three years prior. Those numbers, Halberstam notes, were astounding at the time, not far from the disposable income of an entire family of average Americans after basic billpay a mere fifteen years earlier.

But beyond the changing social structures, what fueled this tectonic shift in consumer culture was technological innovation:

Technology favored the young. The only possible family control was over a home’s one radio or record player. There, parental rule and edicts could still be exercised. But the young no longer needed to depend on the family’s appliances. In the early fifties a series of technological breakthroughs brought small transistorized radios that sold for $25 to $50. Soon an Elvis Presley model record player was selling for $47.95. Teenagers were asked to put $1 down and pay only $1 a week. Credit buying had reached the young. By the late fifties, American companies sold 10 million portable record players a year.

What this technological liberation achieved above all, Halberstam argues, was a reshuffling of the authoritarian hierarchy:

In this new subculture of rock and roll the important figures of authority were no longer mayors and selectmen or parents; they were disc jockeys, who reaffirmed the right to youthful independence and guided teenagers to their new rock heroes. The young formed their own community. For the first time in American life they were becoming a separate, defined part of the culture: As they had money, they were a market, and as they were a market they were listened to and catered to. Elvis was the first beneficiary. In effect, he was entering millions of American homes on the sly; if the parents had had their way, he would most assuredly have been barred.

The Fifties goes on to explore the social, political, and economic changes swept in by the era’s whirlwind of affluence and anxiety, control and chaos, uplift and unease.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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04 APRIL, 2013

Isaac Asimov on Curiosity, Taking Risk, and the Value of Space Exploration in Muppet Magazine


“To make discoveries, you have to be curious about why the universe is the way it is.”

In the summer of 1983, Muppet Magazine invited science fiction icon Isaac Asimovsage of science, champion of creativity in education, visionary of the future, lover of libraries — to “a meeting of the minds,” wherein Dr. Julius Strangepork would interview Asimov. Despite the silly tone of German-inspired Strangepork-speak, the wide-ranging conversation touches on a number of timeless and surprisingly timely issues.

Three decades before the precarious state of space exploration we face today, as NASA is implementing new “cost-saving measures” at the expense of education and public outreach, Asimov speaks to the enormous cultural benefits of space exploration:

Dr. S: Personally, I like hanging around in space. I mean, it beats vatching reruns of de Brady Bunch. But how do you convince other people dat we should be schpending all dis money on space exploration?

Dr. A: By pointing out the benefits. The more we know about the solar system, the better we understand the earth. The very instruments we develop to explore the planets mean that we have better technology for use here on earth.

We now have weather satellites that tell us, for the first time in history, what the weather on the earth as a whole is like. Until we had these weather satellites, forecasting was nothing more than a local guess. We have satellites that study the resources of the earth, so that we know a great deal more about, for instance, where there are sick forests, or where grain is being attacked by some sort of disease, or how to locate oil. And, of course, communication satellites have bound the entire earth together.

On the relationship between space exploration and peace on earth:

I don’t think we can really advance into space until we learn how to cooperate as a planet. It’s not practical to have several different nations jostling and competing their way into space. It’s too expensive, too wasteful, and the benefits aren’t big enough unless they are for the entire planet.

On science fiction as lubricant for change:

My own feeling is that science fiction, of all the different forms of literature, is the one that most easily accepts the notion of change. Things are changing very quickly, and any kid who thinks about it knows that the world in which he or she will be a grown-up — which he or she will be helping to run — will be considerably different from this one. Maybe better, maybe worse, but different. Science fiction explores the future world.

I think more and more young people are beginning to feel that science fiction is the kind of literature that a person interested in reality should be reading.

On using precaution in balancing the risks and rewards of taking a chance:

There is always some risk [in discovery], but you learn to take precautions. When Benjamin Franklin flew his kite in a storm, suspecting that lightning was an electrical discharge, he realized perfectly well that he could get one grandaddy of a shock. But he didn’t just hold the string of the kite. He tied a silken thread to the string and he held the silk because he knew that silk does not conduct electricity. And he stood under a shed to stay dry. … He was taking a certain chance. But he took precautions. He experimented and he did his homework. Another guy tried it in much the same way Franklin did, and lightning jumped from the string of the kite and zapped him.

On the power of curiosity:

To make discoveries, you have to be curious about why the universe is the way it is.

Complement with Asimov’s 1991 essay collection The Secret of the Universe (public library).

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